The New Terrain of International Law: International Courts in International Politics

Karen Alter, Northwestern University

Mon, 03/30/2009
12:00 PM, Robertson Hall, Bowl 016
Event Category: 
Co-sponsored Event

There has been a revolution in the creation and use of international courts in the last fifteen years.  Yet we have very little understanding of what these international courts do, and how international politics is affected by the turn to international courts (ICs).  This book charts the architecture of the international judicial system, focusing on four roles that courts play in a political system—dispute resolution, enforcement, administrative review and constitutional review. Using as data the founding treaties and practices of twenty existing ICs the book argues that the different roles manifest themselves in differences in the design of the legal mechanisms (rules of access, nature of the jurisdiction, and the sanctioning tools). The roles generate different answers to the question of what is the appropriate relationship between counter-majoritarian courts and accountable political actors, and they create fundamentally different types of opportunities for litigants to use ICs to influence international politics, thus each role generates its own distinct politics.  Thinking of the roles courts play in the political process helps us get beyond a list of abstract reasons to delegate authority to ICs while giving us a greater sense of what ICs actually do with their delegated authority. The role-based typology also helps us think about analyzing and comparing ICs beyond a simple subject matter variation (war crimes v. international trade) or regional variation (European courts v. Universal courts v. Latin American courts).   But the many things the typology cannot tell us are perhaps just as revealing.  The ultimate goal of the typology is to tell us how ICs were designed to influence international politics, and thereby reveal the many important questions we need to ask about how and whether international courts actually do or do not play their intended role in international politics. 

"The New Terrain of International Law:  International Courts in International Politics" provides a new framework for comparing and understanding the influence of the twenty existing international courts, and for thinking about how different domains of international politics are transformed through the creation of international courts.    

Karen Alter is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and author of: The European Court's Political Power (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Establishing the Supremacy of European Law: The Making of an International Rule of Law in Europe. (Oxford University Press, 2001). She has also authored numerous articles and book  chapters on international legal systems.  Her most recent manuscripts investigate the politics of international regime complexityhow delegation of authority to international courts affects national sovereignty, and politics in the Andean legal system.  Alter has been a German Marshall Fund Fellow, a Howard Foundation research fellow and an Emile Noel scholar at Harvard Law School. Her research has also been supported by the DAAD and France's Chateaubriand fellowship. She has been a visiting scholar at the American Bar Foundation where she is an associate scholar of the Center on Law and Globalization, Northwestern University's School of Law, Harvard University's Center for European Studies, Institute d'Etudes Politiques, the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartiges Politik, Universität Bremen, and Seikei University. Fluent in Italian, French and German, Alter serves on the editorial board of European Union Politics and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

This event is cosponsored with the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance, and the European Union Program.